Never Did Me Any Harm
Force Majeure @ Space Theatre
2:00pm, Sat 17 Mar 2012
I look up and down the queue outside the Space Theatre when I arrive – its a far cry from the already stumbling hordes I encountered as I passed through Rundle Mall, with barely a skerrick of green to be seen. It’s a very sedate crowd, and I somehow get the feeling that many in the queue – like me – are happy, but weary.
Inside the Space a suburban backyard has been assembled: green grass, the back patio, a tree, a small shed. And within this comfortable environment, the cast of Force Majeure take a frank – and sometimes troubling – look at the roles and responsibilities of parents in raising their children. Whilst The Slap is most certainly in the background of this production, Never Did Me Any Harm casts a bit of a wider net… and uses some of the most intriguing theatrical trickery this year to deliver its neutral eye.
The opening dialogue seems overall to be quite even-handed, quite agenda-free, whilst presenting a wide range of opinions: voiceovers are used to provide conflicting opinions, with voices proclaiming “whack the kids!”, others crying “you should never strike your children”, and others again bluntly placing responsibility of the child on the parents. The audio is purposefully muddled, creating an air of confusion just in deciphering the content; it hints at the idea that we’re contemplating a grey area.
The cast play various sets of adult and their children, recurring characters creating scenes of domestic bliss – or conflict. It’s a bit jarring to see the adults acting as children, but after the initial encounters they become more acceptable, and we’re left to observe the way these children impact their families – though happiness and frustration and anger – as well as those outside the family unit. Curious, too, is the emphasis put on conflicts between family units: the internalised judging that occurs. But the production never seems to laud one approach as “right” – everyone appears capable of as many highs as lows.
And that desperate balancing act seeps into the wider production, too; there’s often the tangible threat of anger spilling out, of violence in the air – when someone is grabbed by the upper arm, the audience collectively holds its breath, and when the other arm is grabbed and the person is shaken, it’s deathly quiet. But when such a moment occurs, there always seems to be some humour just around the corner: for every threat of abuse, there’s two adults pretending to be kids on a billy cart smashing through a carefully constructed bucket obstacle. For every inadvertent whack of a child, there’s a backyard game that ends with a shoe thwacking the father figure in the head. And let’s not forget that Never Did Me Any Harm had some fragments of dance in it, too – the opening interactions of a mother/father seem to describe both the good times and bad through a quiet, introspective movement piece, while the dialogue of others carries on around them.
But the most impressive element of this production was the absolutely stunning lighting design; Geoff Cobham has surely outdone himself with some of the visual effects on display here. Early on, thin bars of light pick out the eyes of a man and a woman in an otherwise dark room; later, an autistic boy dances by himself in shadow, casting his “shadow” as light – an amazing effect. And the backyard is often overlaid with a grid of light, with the grid lines wavering whenever there’s unchecked anger in the air; at other times, the grid simply drifts, creating the illusion that the tree is moving, that the ground is undulating.
There doesn’t really seem to be a narrative to Never Did Me Any Harm as much as a series of somewhat related scenes; the performance ends with the characters sitting around at a social gathering discussing, in very honest terms, the “joys” (or not) of having children (or not). The variety of characters on display are all familiar – the married couple with kids, the single mother, the older man without kids, the guy who joyfully embraced parenthood but now frets about every potential mis-step, the woman who feels unsure about everything – those characters are me and my friends. And the nice thing about this production is that it shows a side of them, of their lives, that I don’t normally see… and doesn’t cast judgment. It’s a very thoughtful piece of work, beautifully produced.